Should Your Next Car Be Electric?

by Kelly Kehoe on 20 May 2013 8 comments

With the national average cost of a gallon of gasoline currently hovering around $3.58 (or even $4+ in some areas), filling up your car may seem like a nightmare. Car fuel is one of the most volatile categories under most families' budgets, because prices fluctuate due to a variety of factors, from Middle East tensions to oil spills or refinery fires. (See also: 5 Simple Ways to Cut Your Car Expenses)

Luckily, there is an increasingly popular alternative to driving environmentally unfriendly, gas-powered cars — electric cars. Forbes reports that at least 47,500 electric cars were sold in 2012 and, although these sales only account for 0.4% of overall car sales in the U.S., electric cars are gaining popularity among American consumers. Whereas a few years ago, SUVs were all the rage, we are seeing a societal shift towards smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and those vehicles powered by electricity are leading the way.

But are electric cars right for everyone?

Cost

One of the biggest factors people take into consideration when shopping for a new car is the cost. With electric cars, you're saving money right off the bat, thanks to federal electric car tax credits, which can reduce the initial cost of the car by $7,500. You also get to eliminate the cost of gas from your budget (unless you drive a gas/electric hybrid), which leads to long-term energy savings.

There are some downsides to the electric car, however. The purchase prices for these vehicles are much higher than similar model, gas-powered cars. For example, the hybrid 2013 Chevy Volt starts around $31,000, the 100% electric Nissan Leaf is "as low as $21,300" (after federal tax savings and without all the fancy add-ons), and the 2013 electric Ford Focus starts at $39,200. Even with the fuel savings, it might take several years to break even.

These high costs make electric cars unaffordable for many low and middle-income households, and even though they're electricity based, there are still more costs involved. For instance, you will probably need to install a charging station in your garage (factor in $1,000 to $5,000), and don't forget regular battery maintenance or replacement costs. All of these costs start to add up, and even without the added car accessories, the final price tag for an electric car is too high for many drivers.

Efficiency

One of the greatest advantages of electric cars is their energy efficiency. A new term was created for electric cars to determine their fuel efficiency — miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent (MPGe). Most electric cars get over 100 MPGe, even larger vehicles like SUVs and station wagons.

The downside here is that electric cars can generally go only 250 miles on a fully charged battery. The infrastructure for public charging stations is scarce in the U.S., so long road trips are out of the question, and if you run out of electricity while on the road, you can't simply go to the nearest gas station and fuel up. This makes electric cars more of an inconvenience for their drivers, but they can still be valuable investments if driven locally and charged regularly.

Environmental Factors

There are few, if any, comparative disadvantages to electric cars where the environment is concerned. Whereas the EPA estimates that gasoline emits 8,887 grams of CO2 per gallon (PDF), electric cars have close to zero emissions. Regardless of your views on what causes global warming and how serious a problem it is, the fact remains that electric cars pollute the air much less than their gas-powered counterparts, and, as the driver of an electric car, you can vastly reduce your impact on the environment.

Final Word

Multiple factors ought to be taken into consideration when buying a car, particularly when you're deciding between a gas or electric car. Although electric cars are more costly upfront, the long-term fuel savings could make it worth your while. And, as technology continues to develop and more car companies produce electric cars to meet the steadily growing demand for them, the cost will likely drop in the coming years.

Have you bought or are you planning to buy an electric car? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below!

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Guest's picture
Kirsten

You don't account for higher insurance premiums. One owner of a Prius had his insurance double (good driver in 50s, no tickets or accidents) and that accounted for more than the savings on gas.

Guest's picture
Brian

I think you misrepresented the environmental factors associated with electric cars. First, I believe you are correct that there are no emissions from electric vehicles but there are emissions from the power plants generating the electricity. A person driving an electric vehicle is transferring emissions from his tailpipe to a smokestack someplace else. As to which has a larger carbon footprint, I do not know. But coal still generates 44% of our nations electricity so there is definitely a carbon footprint in burning coal (instead of gasoline) to power our electric vehicles.

And secondly, these massive batteries used to power electric vehicles have their own environmental effects. Again, the effects may very well be better than the effects associated with burning gasoline but these batteries are not organic and do not biodegrade.

In a lot of ways I feel that the recent green movement is doing a good job of identifying problems but doing a poor job of finding functional solutions.

Guest's picture
Brian Keez

It takes up to 7kwh of electricity to refine ONE gallon of gasoline, which could be from a coal plant. Then the gasoline is burned and pollutes.
With an EV, that 7kwh of electricity from the power plant is 30 miles and the pollution stops there.

Guest's picture
Jerry

Great for urban use, but you'll have to rent a gasser for road trips. And what Brian said about coal power and driving around with half a ton of future toxic waste under the floor.

Guest's picture

You aren't taking the replacement costs of a new fuel cell into account. Nissan Leaf's , for instance, is expected to last only 100k miles and cost $10k to replace. That's $.10 per mile in "fuel costs" on top of the cost of electricity. My husband's Yaris gets 40mpg, or a hair more than $.09 per gallon at $3.75/gal. So the Leaf loses on that account.

Plus, you are badly underestimating the environmental costs of manufacturing a full-electric car versus a traditional car. I believe that it takes the Leaf something like seven years to break even with an average sedan in terms of total environmental impact. It would take much longer to catch up to the Yaris.

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Brian Keez

No price for a LEAF battery pack has been released.

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KNM

Well, I am a recent convert to electric (I am leasing a Nissan Leaf) and so far it works great for my purposes - commuting and short trips around town. I can charge it enough overnight in a regular 120V outlet in the garage, but there is a free charging station at a mall near my house I can use if needed. We are leasing it for two years since we weren't sure if it was something we wanted to commit to long term. My insurance premium went up slightly (< $100/year), but we traded in a small SUV and my husband is now driving my Elantra, so we will see a decent reduction in our gasoline costs. Plus the maintenance over the term of the lease is minimal - tire rotation and brake checks periodically.

I understand the environmental concerns as well - is driving a car charged with coal-powered electricity really better than driving a small, fuel efficient gasoline-powered car? I have no idea; there are tons of factors to consider, several of which you all mentioned. I have tried to limit my driving in general in years past anyway so I burn less gas and get more exercise, and I wish more communities like mine (Midwestern suburbia) had been planned in a way to facilitate less driving.

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Guest

I know this is an old article, but "regardless of your views about global warming," really? You don't get to have "views" on scientific evidence, by its nature.